As schools open again in Western New York over the next few days, something new is in the air, especially for troubled school districts like Buffalo’s. It’s something that is very good for students, but perhaps not for administrators who can’t or won’t find their way forward.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, visiting Lockport last week, raised the educational stakes in answering a question about low-performing schools. To protect New York’s students, he said, there must be “a death penalty for failing schools, so to speak.”
It’s the most declarative statement Cuomo has made regarding his public impatience with schools that don’t measure up, and that’s saying something, given this governor’s open commitment to ending the status quo of chronic failure. We hope he was serious, because he will surely be held to his word.
Cuomo came to Western New York on Thursday to deliver relief checks to those devastated by a June 28 flash flood, but education – or the lack of it – dominated the news. Failing schools, he said, should be given only a short time to improve. If they don’t, he said, “then something dramatic has to happen, because we can’t allow these failing schools to continue.”
Cuomo’s method of execution is a little less precise than anyone might hope, predicated as it is on his desire not to usurp local control completely. “I don’t want Albany to sit there and tell communities how to run their schools, but I do feel comfortable sitting in Albany saying failing schools is not an option,” he said.
In his vision, still taking shape, communities might decide to have the state take over a failing district; give the mayor control, as occurs in New York City; or give control of a failing school to a charter school. Even those changes could have their limits, given the authority some districts have turned over to unions, but there are reasons to believe it could make a difference.
The Buffalo School District, for example, has been unable, even after several attempts, to perform required tasks that other large districts are able to get right the first time. That’s a matter of competence and leadership, and if the School Board can’t start performing up to standards, then any of Cuomo’s prescriptions would be preferable to wasting more years of students’ lives.
Fortunately for those who care about improving New York’s schools, the State Education Department has a leader who is laser-focused on that issue. Commissioner John B. King Jr. is the right man in the right place at the right time. He needs to keep offering help while keeping up the pressure.
With Cuomo’s warning shot, it should be plain that this will be a critical year for Buffalo, and it’s one that is starting out in what looks like an unhelpful way. Following through on its threat to close Pinnacle Charter School, the state has arranged for the school’s students to go to the same building, but it is now a regular city school.
We can see why the state felt it had to act: It can’t put up with failing schools that don’t meet improvement goals. But it’s hard to see how this change – just days before classes open – will be better for students, and that surely is the acid test. In the charter school, they were doing better in some ways than district students, although worse in others.
Given the charter school’s gradual improvements, it seemed a better bet to leave the school in place and continue to demand results. Certainly, there is little reason to hope for improvement as part of a district that has shown little aptitude for that concept.
Still, that’s the state of affairs as Buffalo’s students, and those around the state, prepare to go back to class. It’s an opportunity, just as it is with the Bills and the Sabres, to start anew and plan for the best. In sports, though, there’s always next year. In education, and especially in Buffalo, no one should dare take that approach.